As an executive recruiter, I review thousands of resumes and their cover notes a year, but rarely do I see a great cover letter.
Most are stilted, boring, complicated, unfocused or worst of all, missing entirely. That’s too bad, because knowing how to write cover letters that work can give you an edge in a competitive job market.
First, you need to understand that a cover letter’s job is very simple: to get someone to read your resume with interest.
That’s all it needs to do. You want them to scan your resume cover note and think, “This could be the one,” and so they take a serious and optimistic look at your resume. Job done.
The good news is that it doesn’t even have to be a great cover letter to do its job. In fact, you’ll get the highest likelihood of getting your resume read with what I call the “good-enough cover letter.”
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The good-enough cover letter is short, simple, tailored to the job and is designed to get your resume read.
It isn’t overworked, so it feels confident. It talks about your match to the job, so it establishes a perception of your qualifications, and it gives give just enough information to make them hungry to read your resume.
Here’s how to do it:
Always include a cover note.
I’d say that half the applications have no note at all. Come on. If it’s worth applying for, it’s worth five minutes to write a note. On top of that, no cover note can be a deal-breaker for many hiring managers, who figure if it’s not important enough to you that you make a good impression, you’re not their person.
Write a fresh note for every job. No cut and paste.
The good-enough cover letter points sounds fresh and personal, so just write it new each time. Cutting and pasting is lazy and encourages you to include unnecessary information. We can tell you’re using the same note for every job, and are not impressed.
Keep it short.
The reader is going to scan the note to until they see something that knocks you out of the running. Don’t hang yourself with too much information. Three short paragraphs are just right: 1) an introduction; 2) a couple of highlights about your experience and 3) an expression of interest in the specific job.
Don’t recap your resume.
Remember, the job here is to get them to read your resume. Just share two or three highlights about your background to give them a taste of your experience. Let the real story reside in your resume, which is your real marketing document. Speak directly to the specifics of the job.
Be confident but not overconfident.
Never declare that you’re the perfect person for the job and be careful not to make assumptions or offer advice about the job. Job postings give limited information, so you can safely assume there is a lot you don’t know.
Be friendly and personal.
There is no need to be formal or stuffy when introducing yourself for a job. Just write like you talk and don’t use too many big words, even if you have the world’s biggest vocabulary. Use the person’s name if you know it, and if you don’t, just begin with “Good morning” or “Hello.” Never ever say “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Sirs.” Never ever.
What does a good-enough cover letter that works look like?
Here’s a sample for you:
My friend Jan Smith forwarded me your job posting for a Widget Manager on LinkedIn, and it seems like a good match with my experience in the widget world.
I have been a widget designer with Epic Widgets, where I managed a team of ten widget service assistants, and built our group into the biggest department on the East Coast before the company was sold.
Your company’s new widget line is cutting edge and I’d love the chance to talk to you about this position. My resume is attached for you, and you can reach me at 555-555-1234 at any time.
Looking forward to talking to you,
See how easy it is? The recipient is compelled to look at your resume because your cover note is:
- Is written in simple language and directed at a specific job
- says why you’re sending your resume
- gives some highlights from your background that match their job
- shows genuine interest
- makes it easy for them to call you.
Then, of course, your resume better be great, because it job is to tell your story in a way that gets the interview (if you missed my article You’re Awesome But your Resume Probably Sucks, check it out now).
Put your focus on the resume, and don’t waste time trying to create a great cover letter, when good enough works better when it comes to cover letter formats.
And that’s the secret to how to write cover letters that work. Make it short, friendly and tailored to the job, and you’ll find you get more responses.
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